As a solo guitarist and performer who might also be described as reticent by those who know me, I'm sometimes bemused by the fact that I enjoy getting on stage with my guitar, and that I've ended up pursuing this unlikely line of work. If I ask myself how this happened, though, I could point confidently to Lead Belly. The music of Lead Belly was the first music I remember that caught hold of me. I was five or six, the year about 1960. My parents had an old Folkways LP, Rock Island Line, recorded by Moses Asch, copyright 1951, with a black-and-white photo on the cover of Lead Belly in mid-song, playing his big beautiful Stella 12-string guitar, looking both snappy and imposing in suit and bow tie. The music on that album hit my ears and set me into motion. With Beethoven's "Eroica" and "Pastorale" I stood fixed on a box and directed the orchestra. But Rock Island Line sent me prancing around the room singing and shaking my limbs. The song Rock Island Line was, as well as I can recall, my first "favorite song." It may have been the first song I committed to memory too, complete with the inflections in the spoken introduction about the engineer who tricked the depot agent into a toll-free ride. Then when Lead Belly took up the chorus, it was as though he reared back and hammered the words home, with gleeful vigor:

...if you waaannt to ride it
got to ride it like you find it
get your ticket at the station
for the Rock Island Liii-ne.

I loved the way Lead Belly talked and sang, the way he would spike certain words and syllables with a vocal jab, and I loved the big rangey rhythms he punched out on that 12-string. No song was just another blues or folk song in his hands. It vibrated in your body, like a piledriver rattling the windows. Cotton Fields, Ha Ha This-A-Way, Black Girl, Borrow Love and Go, Last Monday, Shorty George ... I was singing along with all of them at that age. And to this day, I don't think there is another solo performer who can send me into a blissful frenzy the way Lead Belly can, just singing about the cats in the cupboard, or the chicken mama thought was a duck. All that remains of my parents' old record, strangely, are the fragile inner-sleeve notes--four little strips from a sheet of paper that has come apart at the creases, with lyrics typed on an old typewriter, and commentary by Frederic Ramsey Jr. reprinted from the Saturday Review of Literature. I keep those old notes in a ziplock bag inside the case of my 12-string guitar. The record and album cover are long gone.

Years later, when I was 17, a friend named Pat Wilch introduced me to the old country blues recordings, and to John Fahey's music, and I guess I went "berserk" again, to use a word Pat himself liked at the time. I'd started playing guitar at twelve, had taken lessons from a college student who fingerpicked, and I had known about Lead Belly almost my whole conscious life, but I didn't know he'd been part of an entire world of American guitar music. When I heard country blues, and then what John Fahey did with them, I felt I was hearing something that unknowingly I'd been wanting to hear all along but didn't know existed: a whole repertoire on steel-string guitar that wasn't bland strumming. Lead Belly was no longer an isolated phenomenon, but an integral part of a vast and varied landscape of American guitar music, a landscape where instrumental narrative and rhythmic playfulness reigned together. Whatever accidental and circumstantial leanings I may have had then toward the pop side of folk music were blown clear out of the water. I had a chosen direction now. I dug in. I had lucked onto fingerpicking with my guitar teacher when I was twelve, but now I was firmly at the wheel, driving inspired into new vistas.

Mississippi John Hurt and John Fahey were among the first whose repertoires I ransacked, along with Big Bill Broonzy, Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie McTell. Add Lead Belly and you have my Big Six, with John Fahey as the node connecting the dead with the living. Right on their heels came Leo Kottke, the trio Koerner, Ray and Glover, and then a raft of players who hit the scene in the early 70s from both sides of the Atlantic, inspired by country blues and ragtime.

I learned early on from Lead Belly about rhythmic playfulness; both his singing and his guitar-playing are laced with a physical joy that is central to Lead Belly, and, as far as I'm concerned, to this whole guitar-playing endeavor. Learning his songs, with all those cool bass runs, I also developed a strong thumb from the start, a thumb that seeks definition in the bass. Then there's that steady dampened chomp-chomp-chomp-chomp from Big Bill Broonzy and Mance Lipscomb, while you riff on the top strings. Mississippi John Hurt was responsible for a big leap forward. In addition to combining alternating bass notes with melody lines, I think his warm tone and relentless rhythm and funky accents were just as influential. Rev. Gary Davis was huge. His stuff helps you break up the thumb, i.e., break out of the alternating bass so you aren't locked into it with everything you play. Of course that wasn't a conscious goal of mine at the time. I just loved his stuff and wanted to play in that spirit. From Davis you really learn about being emphatic. Everything Davis did was emphatic -- it grabs you and pulls you into the moment and sets you into motion again. And then there was the Bahamian Joseph Spence, the ultimate in rhythmic playfulness and thumb-independence. The 1958 Folkways record, Music of the Bahamas, Volume 1, recorded by Sam Charters, is the most inspirational recording we have of this influential guitarist, the recording, many would agree, where his genius shines through most clearly. The guitar is up front, with a huskier sound than many of Spence's other recordings, and he is in an especially joyful groove, going for five or six minutes on each song, unfurling his musical line out on a bobbing sea and laughing as he wrestles it back in.

Whether described as country blues, ragtime, gospel or American traditional, there is something that these solo guitarists do that is unlike most of the folk and folk-rock musicians who also employ steel-string acoustic guitar. They pay attention to tonal variation, enunciation and so forth, so their guitars "talk." They rarely use pattern picking. Instead, the right hand is varying things all the time, in the service of the narrative, whether it be a sung narrative or strictly an instrumental one. Sure, each player has their favorite licks and their own sound, but when you learn a song from these repertoires, your hands learn something new almost every time. You learn something as well about creating a unified whole where voice and instrument respond to each other and revolve together around a feeling, and you learn about developing a relationship with your guitar.

This tradition, such as it is, of largely solo acoustic guitar playing, had its recorded beginnings in the 1920s and 30s. Many of those players enjoyed renewed and broadened interest in their music during the folk "revival" of the 60s. The music was revisited and given serious attention by anthologists and musicians alike. This was an exciting time, with old recordings and the original artists both being "rediscovered" and presented to the public. The time was ripening both for the notion of a "canon" of traditional American music, and for new forms of music that would use the new knowledge of the older music as a springboard. We had folk societies on one end of the spectrum working to preserve and sometimes replicate the old songs, and on the other end we had rock'n'roll musicians reworking lyrics from Skip James, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson and others into new popular hits. Rock'n'roll was the most famous, but not the only musical form that would draw from these roots and expand outward in the 60s. Though long overshadowed, the solo acoustic guitar player never completely disappeared. And when John Fahey released Blind Joe Death and Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes in the mid 60s, during the same time that we were being exposed to the old country blues players on the folk festival circuit, the steel-string guitar was reborn as a concert instrument. Fahey, it could be said, brought Beethoven to the blues. Or at least I like to think of it that way and connect Fahey's musical synthesis to my own early listening experiences with Beethoven and Lead Belly. And in a very real way that is what he did. His best material synthesizes orchestral drama and classical gravity with blues motifs. It was a synthesis which sent acoustic guitar music in new directions.

Not all of those directions would Fahey accept credit for or even endorse. The "roots," meanwhile, are evident in some of this music, totally absent in others. Among the players who do make a conspicuous nod to the country blues and folk traditions as a source of inspiration and education, there are those who play close to the roots, and those who play further out on the branches. Myself, I'm probably somewhere in the first few branches above the ground. Wherever these players fall, with the best of them there are echoes, reverberations, refractions that are gratifying, even thrilling, to hear and watch as the older forms rematerialize in something that's new and still true.

Copyright © 2001 Phil Heywood